Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Doing You Wrong, Doing You Right: Marketing Online Poker Sites in an Increasingly Crowded Field

Good deeds and bad. Promoters and promotions, marketers and their angles. Around every corner, it seems, there's another new poker site that just has to have your business. And dammit, they're entitled to it, didn't you know?

In recent posts we've mentioned a couple of newer sites that have achieved publicity in proper, even opportune ways, notably Poker.com's benevolence toward a handful of players who won WSOP trips on another site (only to be jilted by that site, and subsequently backed by the folks at Poker.com), and Mansion Poker, which has floated two or three high-profile gimmicks with mixed results to date. But whether I think a given Mansion Poker concept will succeed isn't the big point, nor whether we all have fun with it or not. What is more important is that the marketing of an idea is done through proper (re: generally acceptable) channels.

Mansion Poker has come to play with the big boys, and they are bootstrapping themselves up the name-recognition scale in a big hurry. We'll have more on Mansion Poker in this outlet in the very near future, just as one or two Mansion Poker Reviews will be available shortly through links at the Kick Ass Poker home page. Mansion is going the high-concept, high-dollar route... which is also, by its very nature, high-risk. We'll know in a couple of years how successful they've become, but, at least for now, they're trying to do things right.

Then there are those wannabe sites that just shouldn't be in the online-poker business in the first place. Typically underfunded, working on buggy software or a bottom-dollar knockoff "skin," the folks behind them have dreams of being the next Poker Stars but are largely clueless in how to accomplish the task. Being five years behind the curve doesn't help, either. Last week's lengthiest post, dealing with that Sphinx's Butt Poker or whatever it was, pointed out one common pitfall --- tying your fortunes to a gimmick that has, at best, slim hopes to succeed. Combined with a marketing budget that seemingly might fit inside my nephew's piggy bank and the willingness to "borrow" bits and pieces from people unlikely to catch on, the outlook for a site such as that is grim.

The lack of proper marketing is indeed the death knell for most marginal sites. Unlike a Poker.com or a Mansion Poker, they don't plan properly for the costs of the available media, to fully publicize their wares. As a result, they're often reduced to lame forms of guerrila marketing. Most of these deserve our scorn, because they're trying to get their foothold at the targeted customers' expense.

An example of this dropped into my lap just a week or so ago, and it did so only because I have a secret... a secret e-mail account of which no one in the poker world knows. I believe it to be an e-mail address that was once in existence for some other person, now long disused, and the account's address string was reassigned to me when I opened my DSL account. Here's what's funny: Though the address is seemingly ancient, it still exists on some mass-market mailing lists from its first incarnation.

That's right; among other things, it's a ready-made spam trap. It still catches some, too.

So it was that I received a recent invitation from something called Club 222 Poker to come play at their blah-new-blah-exciting-blah-blah site. Wave your hands if the answer is "Yes" --- have you ever heard of Club 222 Poker? I checked out their main page, figuring it for an iPoker skin or some similar bedsore, but I didn't recognize the screen grabs from the tables, unless they were using a different overlay from anything else I'd encountered.

Okay, who were these people, and why were they spammimg me? (Besides the fact that they'd really like my money.) I surfed that Club 222 Poker site up and down and sideways, and found nada for corporate information.

If there's one thing that would make me even less likely to send off a handful of dead prezzies to an unknown site, this was it in spades --- not telling me where said business is incorporated. I don't care if the site is incorporated in Costa Rica, Gibraltar, Walla Walla (not bloody likely) or Kathmandu, complete with a branch office and remote servers within an enclave blasted into the stone beneath the Hilary Step. I want to know. If you don't tell me, we don't do business.

I'm a bulldog, if not a bloodhound, and I can usually find some answers. It took a different type of searching, and then... success! I discovered that this Club 222 Poker had a connection with another barely-known enterprise called Jungle Poker, though I had seen this "Jungle" name once or twice before. I kept digging, found a contact address, and sent off a query with some obvious questions, like:

Who are you?
Where are you located?
Why are you spamming me?


And wouldn't you know --- I received a lengthy reply. It came from a Richard Hertz at a Dynamic Gaming Systems. ("Dynamic," of course, is an easy qualifier for a Top Ten list of overhyped, generic marketing words.) However, Mr. Hertz's reply was thoughtful, personal, well-written, though I still didn't agree with everything he mentioned. It turns out that Jungle Poker is run out of Costa Rica, though the spammage itself belied some of that, as the bogus-header e-mail was sent through a Bell Canada server and Mr. Hertz's own contact information traces back to a Toronto-area restaurant chain called Filthy McNasty's, or somesuch. So the poker sites --- Jungle, Club 222, and a third affiliate called Dolly Poker --- are controlled by a Canadian group, regardless of where the game servers are running.

Mr. Hertz claimed innocence on the spam, saying it was done by "an affiliate and [they] can market their site as they wish." Mr. Hertz further enlightened me as to his marketing philosophies with this:

"You seem very angry about the spam. I don't like it and I certainly cannot respond the the 30-40 I get everyday. But there is no need to threaten us. We are actually a really nice group."

Well, I didn't threaten --- because there's not much that I could threaten, is there? I did tell him that I was working on a small story about it and viewed spam as negative, and you can see his diffidence to the practice in the above. Sorry, Mr. Hertz, but the fact that we each receive 30 or 40 or however many spams each day doesn't make Daily Spam #41 any more acceptable. I also mentioned in a followup that Jungle Poker first hit the scene by spamming the rec.gambling.poker Usenet group with some modest freeroll offers, so the claim of nonresponsibility for the Club 222 spamming is suspect, too. I do note that the Usenet poker group has been trash-spammed into oblivion for years now, so that part of it was a moot matter.

Spam is advertising where the costs are paid by the recipient, not the sender, and it is therefore repugnant. It takes up my bandwidth, my server space, and above all, my time. It's one of those evils of modern life, but I sure don't have to support those that do it, free-market believer that I am. Spamming is usually tried by entities whose marketing budgets are underfunded, and so they're trying to make their dreams happen on someone else's dime.

So with a big "sorry" to Mr. Hertz, Dynamic Gaming, Club 222, Jungle, Dolly, whatever and whoever, here's a piece of advice: Do it right, pay your own way, or get out of the game. What I really suspect happened here is that people with a slack attitude toward spam --- this being Mr. Hertz and friends --- tried a sample mailing with one of the Toronto spamhauses that have for years been among the 'Net's prime polluters. They may have done so in ignorance, too, if not true innocence, being promised something of a "cleansed gambling list" by the vermin that does those mailings.

To those who would spam, may a legion of Nigerian 9-1-1 spammers consider you their prime mark... and may you really need some v1aGGrah.

As an epilogue, Dan at Poker Site Scout contacted me about the previous piece I did on the depth and breadth of online poker. I mentioned that a complete list of online poker sites and skins was something of a Holy Grail, but Dan informed me that they have a list of over 480 (and growing) active poker sites. So I'll eat my words, but only partially: PSS didn't have the three Jungle sites mentioned here in their lists. It seems like my estimate of 500 different online poker sites must be close, but it's a candle in a breeze. In two or three months there'll be 550, if not 600.

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